Getting started with grant writing

This week, I welcome guest blogger, Judith Brauer, a Ph.D. student in the Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methodologies program at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. In this post, Judith discusses the process entailed in writing proposals to seek funding for research, and provides further resources.  

If you are a graduate student or work in an academic setting, chances are you feel the expectation to be involved in grant writing. It’s something many people want to learn more about, but often don’t know where to start. Yes, grant writing has its quirks, and its own lingo, but it’s not rocket science. Having spent most of my career writing grants and helping others write grants, I know that graduate students and new faculty members who are involved in research and publication already have many of the skills needed to be successful in pursuing grant funding.

Gaining experience in grant writing can help you stand out as a candidate for a position. It can also provide funds to free up time from other duties, like teaching, to help move your research forward more quickly. If you need to travel to a specific location to conduct research, grant funding can help cover those costs. In this blog post, I will outline key parts of the grant writing process and draw parallels to the process of submitting an article for publication in an academic journal.

Start with your goals and areas of interest

When researchers think about writing an article to submit to an academic journal, the starting point often involves clarifying broader research interests and the specific purpose of the article. In the same way, when you start thinking about pursuing grants, it’s good to think about your research interests, longer term goals, and then outline specific potential projects.

Keeping your goals front and center as you search for funding sources will ensure that you stay focused on your priorities and avoid the trap of pursuing grants because there are funds available, but that may lead you in a direction not aligned with your goals.

Find a good match

Before you submit your work to a journal, you read the editorial statement and guidelines for authors. You might also review the table of contents for the past few years, read articles published in the journal, and see who is on the editorial board. All of this work helps you define the focus of the journal, and it’s methodological and theoretical priorities to determine if it is a good match for your work.

The process of researching a funding source is similar. What do funders say they are interested in funding? Are there some areas they specify as not funding? There are also usually clear guidelines about what they do and don’t fund. Review lists of previously funded projects. Are they similar to your project in size and scope? How about methodology and theoretical perspectives? Are there certain values that are important to this funder?

Besides the funder’s website, there are tools to help you gather more information. Many academic institutions subscribe to databases like Pivot and the Foundation Directory Online. These databases allow you to narrow your search by areas of interest, keywords, type and size of the award, and geography. You can also limit your search by eligible recipient (graduate student, postdoc, new faculty, etc.). These systems also allow you save searches and sign up for email alerts tailored to your specific areas of interest.

Some funders offer webinars or in-person meetings about their funding opportunities. These are great opportunities to learn more about a particular funding source. Also, don’t be afraid to call or email a program officer. It is in their best interest to help you understand their guidelines and priorities, and they can often help you “read between the lines” to understand the funder’s perspective more fully.

Another way to find out about funding opportunities is to notice journal articles or conference presentations that include statements like, “support for this project was provided by …” And don’t forget to leverage your network — talk to your colleagues to find out where they have successfully found funding. Most universities also have staff in a central grants office to help you find and apply for funding. As someone formerly in this role, I really enjoyed talking with faculty members about their research projects and helping them find the right funding sources.

Get Organized

When gathering all of this information, it’s important to stay organized. This process reminds me of doing a literature review. In fact, I use a spreadsheet that is similar to the one I use to manage literature reviews. As you gather information about a funder’s priorities, you can also track deadlines and begin to set a calendar for different funding opportunities. Following a process like this is helpful, because you may not be interested in applying to a funding source now, but it’s nice to be able to refer back to it later. I have often been in the situation of finding out about a funding opportunity at the last minute. Instead of trying to rush to meet the deadline, I add it to the schedule to begin working on for the next application cycle.

Create a system of support

I was recently talking with a faculty member in my department about how she prioritizes writing projects in the midst of teaching and other priorities. Her immediate response was, “I always have a co-author.” Similar to the process of writing an article, it helps to have someone else involved in your grant writing efforts to provide encouragement and accountability. This can take a variety of forms. You could find a colleague who is in the process of applying for a grant and offer to help with a piece of the application. Or you could ask a peer or a staff member in the grants office to review a draft of your proposal and give you feedback.

Start local

I have benefitted from local opportunities to present my research at symposiums at my institution. There is a much higher success rate when you start with internal and regional opportunities. This principle plays out in grant writing as well. Most departments and graduate schools offer travel grants. This is a great way to dip your toe in the water and get some experience with the grant writing process. In addition, most institutions offer internal grant competitions to encourage faculty to conduct research. For example, the regional institution where I work offers grants that range from summer stipends to releasing a faculty member from teaching responsibilities for an entire semester to work on research and publication projects. In addition to giving you valuable experience and a higher chance of success than larger competitions, these opportunities build your track record and can make you more competitive for larger grants.

The review process: Be prepared to wait for an answer

Similar to the process of submitting an article to a journal, and sometimes feeling like it has fallen into a black hole, there is often a significant waiting period during the review process. As with journals, there is a lot of variation in how long it might take to hear if your grant is funded. Funding sources usually provide a general timeframe so that you’ll know what to expect, but review processes sometimes take longer than expected. In these situations, it would be appropriate to send a respectful email to a contact at the funding source to request an update.

One difference in the review process for grant proposals versus articles is that the reviewers are less likely to be experts in your specific area. It is usually necessary to translate academic terminology and acronyms, so that someone not familiar with your field could understand it.

Although, you usually receive a firm yes or no in response to a grant application, comments are sometimes provided. You can use them to guide a “revise and resubmit” process during the next application process. A federal Department of Education grant that I worked on took us three tries, but was eventually funded for $1.2 million.

Take the leap

Just like submitting an article for publication, it takes courage to commit to the process and finally submit your work. I believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. Even if a proposal is not funded, you will learn new skills in the process, and you will often move your project forward, even if you don’t receive funding right away.

How will you get started with grant writing? Some next steps might include talking with a colleague who has successfully written a grant; scheduling time to explore one of the funding databases listed below; or attending a presentation from the grants office at your institution.

With a little planning, you can weave grant writing into your research, teaching, and publication goals. This way it can support your goals rather than feel like one more thing to add to your plate.

Resources

The Research in Action podcast, Episode 29 

Episode 28: Dr. Katie Linder provides an overview of grant writing in an academic setting. She also provides resources for finding and applying for grants.

The Foundation Center 

The Foundation Center provides online and in-person training in grant-seeking and proposal development.  They also maintain a large database (Foundation Directory Online) with over 140,000 grant makers (primarily private foundations) that is easily searchable online. Check with your institution to find out if they subscribe to this database.

Pivot 

Pivot is an online database with over 25,000 funding opportunities available from a range of sources. Check with your institution to find out if they subscribe to this database.

About the author:

Judith Brauer’s research interests include examining the role of reflective writing in women’s lives. Judith works at the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students in Georgia, where she leads research efforts to educate and empower practitioners to better serve undergraduate students attending more than one institution on their journey to complete a bachelor’s degree. Prior to this role, she worked in the grants office at a regional comprehensive institution, helping faculty translate their research interests into grant proposals. Throughout her career, she has co-written grants in both academic and non-profit settings, securing over $10 million in private, state, and federal funding for projects ranging from early childhood literacy to digital humanities.

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